Most job seekers look for a position through a combination of networking—both in person and online—and trolling job boards. But many overlook a third, more proactive strategy that's often more effective: pitching the company you want to work for.
Why apply when you haven't heard of an opening? Because approaching an employer makes it easy for them to hire you. Your dream company may have an open position they haven't yet advertised, and pitching them puts you ahead of other job seekers. Or perhaps the bosses don't realize they need a worker with your skills—until you show how it would help their bottom line. Either way, contacting your target company shows you have initiative, and that's a quality employers always look for.
"If someone approaches me proactively and says, 'Hey, I'm really good at X, Y, and Z,' I'll definitely schedule a meeting and get together, even if I'm not ready to hire immediately," says Heather Schwager, who used to work in corporate human resources and now hires as executive director of the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education, a non-profit organization outside Washington, D.C. "I feel like it saves me a step."
The proactive approach worked for Cindy Massey, a 44-year-old Seattleite who was laid off from her marketing job in December 2008, a devastating month for the country in terms of job losses. After nearly two years of fruitless job hunting, she began working with Seattle-based career-transition consultant Paul Anderson, who, through his company ProLango, teaches job seekers to pitch employers, among other strategies. Massey's target company stated on its website that no positions were available, but she contacted them anyway, using a combination of networking and digging, mainly on LinkedIn, to determine the best person to approach. In a personalized cover letter, she explained why she wanted to work for the company, how they'd benefit from her skills, and even described her dream position, which she called Director of Happiness. (To read Massey's pitch letter, see Cover Letters That Worked: Marketing.)
The boss called her that same day, and within weeks Massey was working as online community manager for MindBloom, an online, social game with a healthy-lifestyle focus that calls itself a meaningful FarmVille. Massey's business card identifies her as—you guessed it—Director of Happiness.
"It really came down to a targeted search," says Massey, who has been in her new role since the beginning of this year. "I think too many job seekers just don't do that."
Career coaches and hiring managers agree the key to pitching yourself well is telling the company exactly how you'd contribute. That requires a lot of research: understanding the company's needs, goals, and competitors, as well as who works there. "Just being excited about a company isn't enough," says Amy Curto Leyack, founder of recruiting firm ECOrecruiters, whose husband landed a job with a winery using this approach. Your ultimate goal, she says, is convincing the employer that they'd be crazy not to hire you.
Part of the reason this strategy is effective is because you're positioning yourself to get hired before an opening hits job boards, beating out hundreds, maybe even thousands of job seekers who'd otherwise apply.
"I do think there's a lot of passive openings out here where [employers] would make the hire if they found the dream candidate," says Jerry Hauser, CEO of The Management Center, which helps non-profit leaders with management practices, including hiring. "[But] as with many job-search tactics, if you're a strong candidate, [approaching your target company] can be very effective—and if you're not a good candidate, it won't make any difference."
What's the best way to pitch yourself to an employer?
Research, research, research. "[That's] the thing that's going to make it the most successful," Leyack says. Read the company's website, browse LinkedIn for clues, and talk to current and past employees. Understand the company's goals and how they're trying to reach those goals, so you can figure out how you'd fit in. And when you're ready to pitch, open your e-mail with a line that shows you've done that research, that you're familiar with the company and its direction.
Get personal. In addition to researching the company, use those sleuth skills to sniff out details about the hiring manager. We're not talking about stalking his house, but digging up tidbits through Google or LinkedIn. Look for interests you have in common, and use those interests as an icebreaker in your e-mail. "[Making that connection] ups your chances so significantly," says Schwager, director of the non-profit organization outside Washington, D.C. Being personable also increases your chances of getting hired, since every manager wants to work with employees they get along with (assuming, of course, you're qualified).
Send the e-mail to the hiring manager in addition to generic address. This, too, takes detective work. Once you figure out who the hiring manager is, find that person's e-mail address. If it's not readily available online, call the company switchboard (if there's a real person at the other end). Still at a loss? Find another employee's e-mail and try the same formula for the person you want to reach. For example, because this reporter's e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org, to contact anyone at U.S. News, you'd try their first initial, then last name @usnews.com.
Pitch your fit, not your background. Yes, your experience is important to establish your qualifications. But like with a resume, your pitch shouldn't be a laundry list of accomplishments. Instead, tell the hiring manager how you'd fit into their company, how your skills would be valuable there, and how you'd help the company meet their goals.
Be specific. Don't just talk about your people skills; talk about your people skills as they pertain to whatever you'd be doing for that company. Job seekers often make the mistake of being vague about the type of work they want because they're afraid specificity will close doors. But in reality, it opens them. By explaining exactly how a company could use your skills, you're doing the legwork for them, making it as easy as possible for a hiring manager to imagine you working there. "If you actually solve a problem for them and actually tell them what that need is," says Jodi Glickman, a career coach and corporate trainer, "you have a much better chance, in my mind, of them saying, 'You know what? That's exactly what I need.'"
Say which position you want, even if you have to create it. Go a step beyond pitching yourself—and pitch yourself for a specific position. This can be a job that doesn't even exist yet at the company, so long as you're addressing the company's needs. If you do it well, they may find a spot for you.
Tailor your cover letter. Writing a cover letter that's specific to the job you're applying for is always important. But in this case, "it's even more important," says Leyack of ECOrecruiters. "Especially when you're doing a targeted search... Really address all the reasons why you want to work for them."
Be creative. Take this route only when it's a good fit for the company you're pitching, says Massey, the new MindBloom employee. While her creative cover letter was successful, she acknowledges she might not have included her subtle humor in a pitch to a more serious corporate firm.
Use your network. Don't forget to take advantage of your connections, just like you would with other job-search strategies. Once you've identified which company you want to target, determine whether you—or someone you know—know anyone who works there. LinkedIn especially is helpful in this pursuit. "It definitely helps if you're not coming out of the blue," says Hauser of The Management Center. "If you have a validator or somebody who knows the organization introduce you, that's more likely to lead to an interview than just a cold call." And if you can't find a connection? Create one by joining online or in-person associations that are popular with people who work at your target company.
Offer a business plan. Once you've done all that research, why not put together a one- or two-page plan for your target company with ideas for improving their service or product? Anderson, Massey's coach, says a well-done business plan, while time-consuming to create, is a worthwhile investment because it proves you'd be a solid hire.
Have you tried this proactive approach to job hunting? If so, tell us in the comments how it worked for you.